Phillips recalls film's golden age

by Rebecca Leffler | 11/10/03 6:00am

"I specialized in bitches," announced Kate Phillips, formerly known as Kay Linaker, as she addressed a group of students and faculty in Wilson Hall last Friday.

Phillips, who just celebrated her 90th birthday, is just as well-spoken and poised as she was back in her prime when she starred in over 50 Hollywood films in the 1930s and 40s.

Some of her most memorable turns on the screen were in "Buck Benny Rides Again," "Young Mr. Lincoln" and some of the "Charlie Chan" mystery films.

She has acted alongside such luminaries as Henry Fonda, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby and Sonja Henie. However, Phillips is most famous for one of her achievements as a writer, the 1958 hit horror flick "The Blob."

After a lengthy Hollywood career, this graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Art now teaches at Keene State College in Keene, N.H., and paid a visit to Dartmouth last Friday to regale students and faculty with her interesting anecdotes and thoughtful advice.

Looking back on the golden age of Hollywood, Phillips observed that many things have changed. "What you needed to do was to be aware of your responsibility to earn a day's pay," Phillips said, "There was no room for temperament. There was no room for any kind of being superior. You were playing a part."

She continued, "Everybody knew that what you did was to check your personality at the gate when you came through and from that time on, you were the character. And when you broke for lunch, you had a little bit of being yourself. But it always paid to be pleasant."

Now, however, Phillips observed that "people seem determined to be themselves instead of being the character."

She made her writing debut on the big screen with "The Blob," a classic horror film about an alien lifeform that consumes everything in its path as it grows and grows. Phillips explained that the story idea came from something from the prop department.

"This 'thing' was a two-pound can of liquid gas with no moving parts and no electrical charges," she said, "It was a 'thing,' and it was a 'thing' which could grow to enormous proportions."

Yet Phillips also found that sometimes the scariest thing of all in "The Blob" is never even seen.

"People have said to me that the scariest thing they ever saw was when Steve McQueen is outside of the doctor's office, and when he looks in, and he sees it draped all over," Phillips noted, "You didn't see that. The scariest thing is what you believe he saw."

So how did this small-town girl from Arkansas make it so big? According to Phillips, "I have been so, so lucky. So actually the transition from Arkansas was really a step-by-step thing."

Phillips attended private school in Connecticut and spent her summers in western New York state, where she encountered a number of interesting people.

"When I was very small, I met my next-door neighbor who is a very interesting gent," Phillips recalled. "He looked at me and said, 'What's your name?' and I said, 'Mary Katherine Linaker.' And he said, 'Uh, all that? No, I'm gonna call you Missy.' And I said, 'Well what should I call you?' And he said, 'Call me Mr. Tom.' It was Thomas A. Edison."

Another of Phillips' more notable encounters was with legendary stage and screen actor Mary Astor.

"She had originally been cast in the part that I was playing, and she didn't want to play the part and for good reasons," Phillips remembered, "But the third day of the picture, she came over, she looked at me, and she asked 'Do you object if I come on the set?'"

The story continued, "Everybody was taking care of me except for the leading man. He was used to pushing people aside and being sure that no shots were being printed except his. And then all of a sudden, Mary came on the set and we started the next take. She told him, 'Rick, I hear from everybody that she's a really nice girl. Not only that, she's a good actress. You're not going to ruin this girl's career.'"

Ironically, Phillips' love of film did not appear overnight. In fact, according to her, "When I went into theater, I didn't even like films," Phillips remembered. "I don't think I saw a film until I was probably 16 years old. I don't remember really going to see a film until I went to see 'Son of the Sheik.' My only interest was in theater."

The actor's passion for her craft has come through in all of her films. "There is nothing phony about being an actor, because an actor is the character from start to finish," she said.

According to Phillips, actors are able to move from reality to fantasy with their characters and are thus generally happy people because "the happiest time of growing up is when one can make believe."

Phillips also extends this passion to her writing. "When writing, don't ask your character to be phony," Phillips advised, "The easiest way to write is to know your characters. If you believe in the character, then the actor will believe in the character and the audience will believe in the character."

Phillips' wisdom is a lesson for those young Dartmouth students looking to "make it big" in Hollywood.

"I think the thing that you should do is to be as rounded and know as much about shooting motion pictures, working in the motion picture industry," Phillips said.

The Hollywood veteran closed with some advice that extended beyond the realm of show business.

"Every idea we get is a gift from whoever you believe in," Phillips said, "and you never say anything to the giver of the gift but 'thank you.' Remember that."

Though she may look like your grandmother, the fire in her eyes and the pose in her stature keep Phillips among the young at heart.